Wednesday, 29 November 2000

Deviations , Nov 29, 2000

by Allen O'Leary  Elbow Theatre
at La Mama until December 17, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Deviations, by Allen O'Leary, is described in the program as "a stylish black comedy about sex." We can agree that it is quite grim and it is comical at times and that it focuses on sex. Unfortunately it is not stylish.

There are some funny moments arising out of this reflection of inner-urban angst and contemporary confusion about relationships, love, sex and sexual preferences. These wear thin after two hours.

O'Leary's script is crying out for a ruthless edit. This might make a reasonable one hour play but at 120 minutes, it is far too long. Scenes keep repeating themes, characters are dislikeable, unsympathetic and  shallow.

The story is over-stuffed with social issues, deviant behaviour that is hardly shocking and stereotypes. The narrative is predictable but slow to unfold. The dramatic murder at the end was followed by a series of unnecessary scenes.

The four actors (Pip Branson, Michael Butcher, Lenore McGregor, Lucie O'Brien) look and sound uncomfortable throughout. They struggle with repetitive dialogue that is riddled with platitudes. There is far too much shouting in place of real emotion.

Iain Sinclair's direction lacks imagination. The scene changes are interminable and the repeated moving of furniture around the space in black-outs is irritating and unnecessary.

He has difficulty making this piece of naturalistic television drama work on stage. It is wooden and there is not design or lighting to pull it out of the ordinary into the theatrical.

Karen and Matt (O'Brien and Branson) are a young couple who have not had sex for two years since Karen was raped. Susan (McGregor) is a feisty and forward lesbian who owns an architecture practice. Her best friend is Richard, (Butcher) a gay man who is an unsuccessful and depressive poet.

What happens is a hot pot of shattered romance, lost love, betrayal, deceit and lies. Everybody is experimenting sexually. The straight characters play with the gays and vice versa.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday, 25 November 2000

A Large Audience in Attendance, Nov 25, 2000

A Large Audience in Attendance, by Brian Lipson
at The Royal Society of Victoria, Nov 25 until December 3, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Brian Lipson's solo show about British scientist, Francis Galton, is one of the most riveting performances this year. The writing is complex, intelligent and colourful, the style absurd and Lipson's performance outrageous and hilarious.

Lipson makes imaginative leaps using Galton's eclectic scientific interests and his recognised genius as the starting point for a fascinating theatrical event.

We enter, via a cramped foyer and narrow stairway, the upstairs chamber of The Royal Society building in Latrobe Street. This entry echoes Galton's peculiar image of the conscious mind as a chamber with an adjoining antechamber in which ideas wait to enter the consciousness.

Lipson, dressed initially in full period costume, is seated in a tiny replica of a Victorian study, jammed with odd scientific devices, projection equipment, lamps, candles, umbrellas and pictures.

This is not merely an impersonation or characterisation of Galton nor is it a dramatisation of his life and work. Lipson/Galton is constantly conscious of being played by an actor.

He refers to the actor, reminds us he is faking, that us Galton is dead and that this is a theatrical environment which must abide by the conventions of theatre. He even writes 'Mr. Lipson' on his forehead to reinforce that this is an actor.

There is no logical sequence to the dialogue. Lipson/Galton dives from rough experiments which end in his being kicked in the face by his own boot (hilarious) to lantern slides demonstrating his theory of eugenics. (frightening)

Galton's obsession with the nature of the Jewish physiognomy is at the core of Lipson's interest in him. Galton was the first to study eugenics. He proposed the perfecting of the human race by selective reproduction. He was the precursor to all that was evil in the Nazis racial purification.

Lipson leaps about both inside his tiny Victorian cubicle and amongst the audience. He manipulates our behaviour as much as his own or Galton's. He both ridicules and fears Galton's bizarre behaviour and experimentation.

This is the perfect combination of theory and practice, theatre and reality, present and past, truth and fiction. It is a splendid, disturbing and compelling performance by a skillful actor with impeccable comic timing.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 22 November 2000

The Women's Gaol Project, Nov 22, 2000

by Karen Martin
at Women's Refractory VUT Sunbury campus
November 22-December 9, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The visit to the Federation style late 19th century Sunbury Women's Gaol is strangely disembodying.

We experience the site of women's incarceration, we hear the stories of women committed as insane when they were actually suffering menopausal, post-natal depression or alcoholism. We see the tiny cells and the canvas straight-jacket camisoles in which they were trapped.

One needs to either shift the experience to arm's length to avoid the emotional pain of empathy with theses victims or else to enter whole-heartedly even skinlessly into it to feel the weight of history and its abuse of the women.

The restored Building M6A at the gaol is the site of this installation performance written and directed by Karen Martin and performed by Helen Hopkins, Maria  Papastamopolous Ruth Bauer and Judy Roberts.

The building was called The Women's Refractory because it as for 'refractory' of difficult, violent, noisy, uncontrollable patients.

We enter the cyclone wire gates and out first stop is the verandah where historical computer, photographic and painterly images tell the stories of women who were 'committed by friends or by 'husband and brother' or who 'knifed a nurse'.

Inside the rectangular courtyard we may move between three sites. At each location a woman appears near-naked, painted the colour and pattern of the federation brickwork. (make-up by Jane Ormond OK) She is so dehumanised by her incarceration that she has become part of the brickwork.  It is haunting, surprising and moving.

Bauer climbs acrobatically on ropes speaking in the language of contemporary cultural theory  and as writer Virginia Woolf who was a depressive.

Papastamopolous voices the desire for touch, speaks as the ancient Greek prophetess, Cassandra and cries 'How long must one live like this?, a question that wrenches at the heart as we see and hear the abuses to which they were subjected.

The references to Woolf and Cassandra are not necessary or particularly relevant and the production is not theatrically or textually very innovative. It is not creation of believable dramatic characters that moves us but the constant reminder of the reality of the stories and the palpable presence of the women crying out from the past in this place.

Roberts stands atop a roof singing and reciting a litany of case histories of women from the institution.

This is a powerful piece that drags us screaming into the past to visit the horror of institutions at the turn of the century. Are we kinder now? Who knows.

By Kate Herbert
for 2 pages:

Friday, 17 November 2000

GIrl Talk by Patrick Edgeworth, Hit Productions, Nov, 2000

GIrl Talk by Patrick Edgeworth 
Hit Productions at Merlyn Theatre until November 17, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Theatre comes to us in many forms for many different kind of audiences. Girl Talk is a commercial and light-hearted play that will appeal to a wide audience who are not interested in high art, obscure themes or depressing issues on stage.

Playwright, Patrick Edgeworth, writes for film and television as well having written the hit West End play, Boswell for the Defence, which starred Leo McKern. Girl Talk opened in the UK in 1995.

The style and plot of Girl Talk are related to television comedy-dramas or even to sit-coms. The story deals with serious issues such as grief, abandonment and divorce, in a superficial but entertaining way.

It is directed with finesse by David Latham who keep the pace swift and funny. The design by Judith Cobb is a large square living room with an ornate rose window as its rear wall.

The Merlyn is perhaps too big for the play but the two actors are able to draw us toward them.

Performances by Jackie Weaver and Christen O'Leary , are bright and funny. Their relationship on stage is warm and they represent two very different types of single mothers in the suburbs.

Julie (Weaver ) emigrated to Australia from the north of England 23 years ago with her new husband, Brian. Now in her 40s, she finds herself abandoned when Brian runs off with a 25 year old, leaving her with two teenagers.

Gail (O'Leary) is younger and profoundly unhappy in her singledom. She chooses inappropriate men to fill her lonely days and nights: a married handyman and  a young shelf-stacker at the supermarket, to name two.

The story is a suburban fantasy. When middle aged women who spent their lives bearing children, caring for family and pandering to husbands are left alone, they generally suffer profound grief and loss. This story sees Julie whip through her pain with a few gentle tears.

She finds a new lover who is the perfect man, confidently sends her Pam Ayres-style poems to publishers and becomes a sexual athlete overnight. Pure fantasy, but very cheering to audiences who fear the end of plodding relationships.

This play by Hit Productions, is touring the country during 2000-2001 and should be a great success with the crowds.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 15 November 2000

Escape from the Living Dead, Nov 15, 2000

by Abe Pogos
La Mama at The Courthouse, Nov 15 until December 2, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The original intention of a playwright can sometimes be obscured in the final script. This seems to be the case with Abe Pogos's play, Escape from the Living Dead.

Pogos states in the program that the play is about "the nature of racism and misogyny. It dramatises the different ways these attitudes manifest themselves amongst people who believe they are acting with the best intentions..."

However, these two issues are  dealt with in such a heavy-handed manner that the point is blunted. Pogos employs a great deal of preaching to the audience through the characters that does not allow any genuine human dimension to the issues or the characters.

The five actors (Dennis Coard, David Davies, Jane Conroy, Lisa Maza, Andrea Swifte) work very hard to make Pogos's characters come to life. Each finds moments of emotional truth or humour. They struggle to bring to life characters who speak inconsistent and repetitive dialogue.

Kathy (Maza) is a Koori actor in a country town theatre company run by Ted (Coard). She works on a Boris Karloff style zombie play with other actors, Bernadette and Travis (Conroy  Davies)

Kathy is patronised, abused and mistrusted by the actors and the deeply conservative publican at the hotel where she lives. (Swifte) She is given roles of only children or animals. Her work is criticised, her culture demeaned and her opinions ignored.

One major problem with the script is that Pogos has all the characters describing or discussing each other much of the time rather than allowing us to see their interaction or observe their characters living and breathing.

The narrative has no clear through line. It is confusing an the story is often incoherent. This is through no lack of effort or skill on the part of the actors.

The style is non-naturalistic most of the time. The schlock-horror play within a play is directed in a broad 30s movie style. This epic style spills over into the Arne Neeme's direction of the 'real' scenes.

Conroy as Bernadette tries,= with missionary zeal to teach Kathy to act. Coard, plays Ted as a dogmatic, slightly nutty priestly character while Davies as Travis is scarily obsessive about appropriating Kathy's indigenous culture. Maza manages to play Kathy's journey from child-likeness to rebellion.

The play has potential and good acting but the style and script are in the end unsatisfying.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday, 11 November 2000

Wozzeck by Alban Berg, Opera Australia, Nov 11, 2000

Wozzeck by Alban Berg
Opera Australia at State Theatre
 November 11, 16, 22, 25, 28, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The score of Alban Berg's 1925 opera, Wozzeck, crawls inside the tormented mind of the soldier, Wozzeck. (Jonathan Summers)

The score rises and falls like a roller-coaster with the chaos of Wozzek's escalating madness and culminates in his murdering his lover, Marie. (Margaret Medlyn)
Berg's libretto is based on Georg Buchner's powerful but incomplete play, Woyzek, from 1837 which in turn was based on a real murder in Leipzig in 1821.
His music is extraordinary, making this one of the 20th century masterpieces. Berg, a pupil of Shonberg, worked in an atonal 12 note form but also employs eclectic musical forms and borrows from or satirises other composers.
Buchner's play has 27 episodes. Berg uses 15 scenes in three acts. Adding to his moving music is the spare language, passionate outbursts by characters in recitative and song, as well as the ridicule and oppression of the poor, simple, deluded soldier.
The outcome is a moving representation of Wozzeck's moral, physical and mental breakdown leading to the murder of his lover.
Director, Barrie Kosky, creates a visual and emotional landscape. He places the orchestra on stage and the action on a steeply raked, uncluttered floor over the orchestra pit. 
Peter Corrigan's vivid, grotesque design comprises huge German Expressionist images rising like nightmares from hell. A plastic rubbish bin is the only prop.
The music swells under the exceptional conductorship of Gabor Otvos. The score carries us along in a flood of emotion culminating in the sustained natural B crescendo when Wozzeck's mind collapses.
Summers performance and voice as Wozzeck are commanding and his characterisation is impeccable and sophisticated. As Marie, Medlyn is impassioned and sympathetic and her role is beautifully sung.
Wozzeck's tormentors, the Doctor and Captain, are sung with relish and humour by Barry Mora and Richard Greager . The featured cast is delightful and includes Adrian McEniery, Horst Hoffmann, Tyrone Landau Jennifer Birmingham , Warwick Fyfe and Roger Howell .
Kosky's beer garden party looks like an insane Sydney Mardi Gras complete with leather outfits and half-naked revellers. The children's chorus appears decked in Christmas tinsel and the Idiot (Landau) is a street clown.
There are no flaws in this production. It is relentless both musically and emotionally. The tension soars with the music and the final image of Wozzeck's tiny son crawling inside a rubbish bin after the death of both his parents, is poignant.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 3 November 2000

The Procedure, Nov 3, 2000

by Peta Murray Melbourne Workers' Theatre
at North Melbourne Town Hall until November 18, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Actor, Jim Daly, loves a solo show and he does them superbly. In The Procedure by Peta Murray. he plays Mike, a corrupt politician who roams his office one Friday evening, drinking himself into a stupor while coming to terms with the possibility that he may have colon cancer.

Sounds serious? In fact, it is hilarious. Daly scampers about the open space of the Supper Room at North Melbourne Town Hall like an addled puppy. Peta Murray's script, even though it is based on her own experience of colon cancer, is fast-moving, witty and well-observed.

Although Daly is on stage alone for 95 minutes, Murray peoples the play with vivid and lively off-stage characters by giving Mike a series of phone calls to and from his media officer, doctor pal, wine-growing mate, his wife and son.

The audience is seated on two sides of the action as Mike, the Health Minister and ex-pharmacist, darts from several phones on his desk to a cupboard filled with pills and potions. He dives in and out doors, changing clothes, making plans, panicking and preparing his own obituary and eulogy.

The politician is called Mike, as is every other off-stage character to whom he refers, except his wife, Ellen.

The action gets wilder and more out of control as Mike gets drunker and more convinced that he has cancer. As Health Minister, he instituted  "The Procedure' which is a cheap and efficient health test for bowel cancer. He receives a cryptic message from his mate the surgeon about his own stool test and believes it is a cancer diagnosis.

Daly builds from smug, lying and composed politician at the beginning of the play, to almost delirious madness. His drunken ramblings are a riot as he tears off his suit, pops more pharmaceuticals from his hoard and prowls like a caged lion in his Health Department offices.

Murray seems to change styles in the second half, shifting from broad political satire to a more abstract and slightly confused form.

Director, Aidan Fennessy, highlights the insane roller coaster ride that Mike goes on as he faces his fate. The space is lit dramatically in strong almost cartoon-like colour (Jens Milbret) and various audio visuals provide Mike with a trip into his past and future.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 2 November 2000

Theft of Sita, Nov 2, 2000

 by Nigel Jamieson
at Malthouse until November 4, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

This telling of the story of The Theft of Sita is distinctively Australian-Indonesian. It is told evocatively not only with Indonesian shadow puppets but with contemporary Indonesian images of environmental destruction, rebellion, mostly English dialogue with heaps of Aussie slang.

The narrative is a funny and moving portrayal of the Sanskrit epic, The Ramayana. Director, Nigel Jamieson, collaborated with composer, Paul Grabowsky, Director of Puppetry, Peter Wilson  and Dalang, (Indonesian chief puppeteer) I Made Sidia to create a rich visual and aural world.

The production's great strength is its successful parallel of the mythical story of King Rama's wife, Sita's abduction by the demon Rawanna with modern issues of ecology, power, wealth and urbanisation.

The beautiful Sita is stolen as she wanders the forest with her husband. She is kept caged in a sprawling city by Rawanna. Sita's kidnapping comes to represent the rape of the exotic landscape of Indonesia that is flooded for tourism, deforested for building and rid of native fauna for profit.

The form of the production is in the style of the Indonesian Wayang Kulit, or shadow puppetry. Jamieson uses the clown servants of King Rama, Twalen and Merdah, as the protagonists in the narrative.

This father and son duo go on a quest to rescue Sita and face forest fire, famine, wood-chipping, white water rafting and a surreal urban chaos.

The shadow puppets are innovative. Not only do we see traditional characters but there are shadow forest animals, musical instrument creatures playing rock songs, and huge electric pylons and buildings.

In addition, there is distressing film or photographic imagery of real riots and blasted landscapes in Indonesia  The images are thrown onto a small screen and then a full screen that covers the entire front of stage.

The musicians, puppeteers and actors and singers are secreted for most of the 95 minutes, at the rear of the stage .They create magical and disturbing images for us that are designed by Julian Crouch and lit by Damien Cooper

Not least of the elements is the spectacular musical composition by Grabowsky. He combines the sounds of Indonesian Gamelan music with melodic or cacophonous contemporary western music. The music is transporting.

Sita is challenging both theatrically and sociologically. It is also a hoot for the family. Kids loved it.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 1 November 2000

Maquina Hamlet, Nov 1, 2000

by Heiner Muller El Periferico de Objetos
at Playhouse until November 4, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

El Periferico de Objetos is an unsubsidised theatre company from Buenes Aires which has a substantial reputation in Europe and the Americas.

The combination of this visual theatre company (directors: Daniel Veronese, Emilio Garcia Wehbi and Ana Alvarado) with German playwright Heiner Muller's 1979 abstract script, The Hamletmachine,  is startling and disturbing.

Muller might not recognise his play but he might be delighted with this company's extrapolation on its ideas. Maquina Hamlet  is visually compelling and resonates with oppressed cultures worldwide.

The Hamlet story is merely a vehicle for observations about totalitarianism, death, obsession, revenge, repression, suicide and incarceration.

The bleakness of the world of dictatorships from which this play comes, namely East Germany and Argentina, is present in the production. It is grim and relentless in its condemnation of man's inhumanity to man and woman. Violence is like a machine that reproduces abuse century after century.

The piece is divided into five sections. Each title and all the text translated into English is projected onto the rear wall of the Playhouse while a voice over in Spanish recites the script.

At times the lighting (Jorge Doliszniak) is grim and confined. At others, the entire stage is lit starkly in the "alienation" style of Brecht and Heiner Muller's Berliner Ensemble.

Images are often grotesque and distressing. The opening scene, A family Album, is like a banquet table at which are seated life-size mannequins and actors (Felicitas Luna, Emilio Garcia Wehbi, Jorge Onofri, Alejandro Tantanian -all) with little dolls representing Hamlet's family and playing out their gruesome tragedy.

Part Two, The Europe of Women, sees Ophelia dressed as hooker, caged and tortured by rat-men. Part three, Scherzo is a night club setting with mannequins at tables, actors dancing with and abusing women on wheels and a chanteuse singing.

Part Four contains disturbing photographic projections of massacre, war, revolution and abuse and a mannequin used as a dart board. In the final scene, a life size doll is torn limb from limb by his torturers.

 Although I was strangely unmoved emotionally by this piece, it is theatrically challenging and takes the Hamlet narrative and Muller's script to new and interesting locations.

By Kate Herbert